Monday, July 14, 2008

Sinister Seduction: The Beguiled (1971)

The Beguiled finds Clint Eastwood playing against the type of character that had made him a star in films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. While the stoic Man With No Name let his actions do the talking, John “Mc B” McBurney, the injured Union soldier at the center of Don Siegel and Eastwood’s forgotten pre-Dirty Harry collaboration, is a man who uses his silver tongue to allure, win over, and ultimately deceive his marks. In short, he’s not a very nice guy-- but then few characters in The Beguiled are. The film, which Siegel noted as a personal favorite in his long career, is an exploration of repressed sexuality and human treachery, and its unhinged characters-- who range from the misguided and spurned to the downright malicious-- are what make it an interesting and subtle twist on the typical Western formula.

The film is set at an isolated school for girls during the Civil War. Battles rage just outside of the plantation gates, and the school’s headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page) is often forced to turn away sex-starved soldiers who show up looking to “protect” her students, but otherwise the school exists as a peaceful oasis in the middle of the devastated South. That is until John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier, arrives looking for help, and the young girls, along with head teacher Edwina Dabney and the lone slave woman Hallie, reluctantly take him in and care for him. McB’s status at the school is uncertain-- he is, after all, the enemy-- and upon awakening he isn’t sure if he is a patient or a prisoner, though the wooden boards that Ms. Martha nails over his windows are not too heartening. A ladies' man who's as smooth as he is creepy (“old enough for kisses,” he says to one girl upon learning she is twelve), McBurney takes to flirting with the girls to pass the time and get on their good side, and soon has the whole school under his spell. The jealousy he creates among the students and the teachers (especially the repressed Ms. Martha, whose own sexual history is more than a little twisted) soon has the school in shambles, as the women all clamor for McBurney’s affections, a competition that quickly takes a turn toward the weird.

The Beguiled is a good, solid film throughout, but as much respect as I have for Don Siegel (he made Invasion of the Bodysnatchers... enough said) I think it could have been a great movie had it been directed by someone else. Siegel’s a hell of a filmmaker, but he was always a better hand at directing hard-boiled crime dramas like Dirty Harry and the severely underrated Charley Varrick than more subtle, surreal material like this. This was the kind of movie a guy like Roman Polanski (especially in the early 70s at the height of his powers) was born to direct, as its exploration of isolation and budding sexuality seems more at home in a European art film like Repulsion than it does in a Clint Eastwood movie. Likewise, later scenes where an increasingly warped Ms. Martha begins to practice her surgery techniques on McB seem as though they could’ve been ripped from Polanski’s early work. To his credit, though, Siegel understands the surreal landscape in which he is working, and weaves in some truly great scenes, notably a dream sequence that is a fascinating piece of filmmaking. But for a lot of the film it feels like he is out of his depth, and things begin to lag just when they should be at their most exciting.

What keeps The Beguiled afloat are a number of excellent performances, foremost Clint Eastwood as McBurney. If it is known for anything, The Beguiled should be remembered as the film that established Eastwood as the talented actor that he truly is. It was an incredibly brave choice following his iconic roles in Sergio Leone’s westerns to play a part where he is immobile in a bed for the majority of the film, but Eastwood pulls off the role magnificently. He is totally believable as the resourceful but self-possessed McB, and he manages to bring a great deal of shading to a character that could have easily been a one-sided caricature. We root for him throughout the movie, and we want him to escape the clutches of the jealous women, but we also recognize that he’s pretty much a scumbag. That’s a duality that, outside of his role in Dirty Harry, we wouldn’t see out of Eastwood again until he made the masterpiece Unforgiven.

In addition to the nuance of Eastwood’s performance, his characterization of McBurney is buoyed by skillful performances from the all-female supporting cast. Geraldine Page manages to be equally sympathetic and downright terrifying as the ice cold Ms. Martha, while Elizabeth Hartman (Walking Tall) brings one of the few notes of innocence to the loyal Ms. Dabney. Throughout the film, every character has moments of honesty and treachery, sin and virtue, and this technique complicates the story in a way that manages to be endlessly interesting. The only character that doesn’t commit a truly heinous act is the slave Hallie, excellently played by Mae Mercer (who would also make an appearance in Dirty Harry) in a role that well illustrates the pain and complexities the war posed for Southern slaves. If The Beguiled were remade today, screenwriters and producers obsessed with political correctness would probably give her a speech condemning the Confederacy and the institution of slavery, and in doing so the character would become an anachronistic parody. What we get here instead are a few playful exchanges between she and McB (he thinks she should help him because he’s fighting for her freedom) that say everything they need to say without ever being stilted. McB and Hallie’s interaction feels genuine and honest with respect to the milieu--not the kind of desultory preaching written from the vantage point of the present that seems to populate most Hollywood period pieces.

But I stray from the point. The Beguiled is worth seeking out, both for its daring themes and its high level of creepiness. Siegel’s conclusion was a little less than I had hoped for (I think it would have been better served to move in an even more disturbing direction), but the ending is completely satisfactory, and runs in a different direction from just about every Clint Eastwood movie ever made. Still, the real thing to watch for here is Clint’s excellent performance, which I would be so bold as to call one of the best of his career.

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